Two Forms of the Free Process Defense
One of the more interesting proposals for understanding God’s relation to evil in the natural world is the “free process defense.” Not many realize, however, this proposal comes in two forms. I affirm one but not the other.
The basic idea of the free process defense to the problem of evil says the natural world is a dynamic place made up of interacting systems. These interacting systems depend upon one another and mutually influence one another. A disturbance or variation of one part of the system can have dramatic effects in other parts.
The free process defense says God wants a world with these interrelated and interdependent processes and systems. We need this kind of world for the possibility of freedom, a measure of spontaneity, and genuine randomness.
A world fully controlled by God would have no natural evil. But such a world would also not support free creatures, self-organization, or randomness. A totally determined world has no room for novelty.A totally determined world has no room for novelty. Click To Tweet
The free process defense says God could not interrupt the regularities of existence without God causing greater negative consequences in existence. In fact, God not interrupting the processes of the world is, theologically speaking, as sign of divine faithfulness. As John Polkinghorne puts it, “the regularities of the mechanical aspects of nature are to be understood theologically as signs of the faithfulness of the Creator.”
Voluntary Divine Self-Limitation and the Free Process Defense
The free process defense comes in two forms. Let me begin with the form I find unsatisfactory. Let’s call it the voluntarily divine self-limitation free process defense.
This form says God could interrupt the free processes of the world to prevent genuine evils from occurring. God could momentarily suspend the processes, conditions, and laws of the universe to prevent evil. But God usually chooses not to interrupt the systems and processes, because doing so would, in some way, throw the whole universe off kilter.
This first form of the free process defense encounters a major problem. It assumes God’s failure to interrupt world processes is a voluntary choice. In other words, the first form of the free process says God could stop evil by “fiddling with” the processes of existence. But God voluntarily chooses not to do so.
We may think wide-scale changes to the world could do more harm than good. But we’re also prone to believe a small change in a particular instance should be possible to prevent evil. It’s difficult to imagine that God fiddling in any situation throws off kilter every situation.It’s difficult to imagine that God fiddling in any situation throws off kilter every situation. Click To Tweet
For instance, we might think preventing an impending hurricane would have far-reaching negative effects on ecosystems that need the replenishing only drastic weather can bring. So we may think God would choose not to stop the hurricane.
But most people could also imagine God stopping a rape by momentarily shifting some natural system, fiddling with the rapist’s brain chemical balance, or adjusting some minor variable in a local circumstance. It’s very hard to see how this minor adjustment to some physical process would throw the whole universe out of whack.
Involuntary Divine Self-Limitation and the Free Process Defense
The second form of the free process defense says God’s failure to interrupt the free processes of creation derives from God’s eternal nature of love. This is part of a larger model of providence I call, “Essential Kenosis.”
Essential kenosis says God necessarily gives agency and self-organization to creation and this giving derives from God’s loving essence. The dynamic, sometimes chaotic, and partially random universe with its various systems and processes emerges from God’s necessarily creative and kenotic love. To put it another way, the free process of life is an essential expression of divine grace not an arbitrary decision.
Essential kenosis overcomes the problem in the form of the free process defense that says God’s gifting is entirely voluntary. Creation’s processes and law-like regularities derive from God’s persistent and loving activity. These regularities are neither entirely voluntary nor do they transcend God from the outside. Rather, God’s loving activities reflect the eternally unchanging divine essence of love.
Rather than being an external watchmaker, God’s ongoing, ever-influential love conditions all creation as the One in whom all things live and move and have their being.God’s loving activities reflect the eternally unchanging divine essence of love. Click To Tweet
God’s Faithful Love is Necessarily Expressed
Essential kenosis agrees with the Apostle Paul’s claim that God “cannot deny himself.” The Creator’s faithfulness derives from the divine nature of love. In fact, it is in the context of the Apostle Paul emphasizing divine faithfulness that we find the biblical claim about God’s inherent limitations: “God remains faithful,” because God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tm 2:13).
Because God’s universal and steadfast self-giving love has the effect of establishing law-like regularities throughout creation, God cannot interrupt these regularities. Interrupting law-like regularities would require God to fail to provide existence to portions of creation. But God cannot do this. Because God’s nature is love, God cannot override the order that emerges nor does God establish that order arbitrarily.
Polkinghorne says that the regularities described by physics “are pale reflections of [God’s] faithfulness towards his creation.” He speculates that God “will not interfere in their operation in a fitful or capricious way, for that would be for the Eternally Reliable to turn himself into an occasional conjurer.”
I agree with Polkinghorne’s first comment. But I would say the divine nature of kenotic love entails that God cannot interfere with these law-like regularities, not that God will not interfere. The processes and regularities in life derive from God’s nature of necessarily self-giving love.The processes and regularities in life derive from God’s nature of necessarily self-giving love. Click To Tweet
This is one of the ideas I’m proposing in my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. The book project was made possible by a grant from the Providence and Randomness project, directed by James Bradley. In fact, grant recipients are meeting in early June at Fuller Theological Seminary to discuss their research. Look for details on the conference as the dates draw near.
 In Thomas Jay Oord, ed. The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, Faith and the Search for Meaning (London: SPCK; Philadelphia: Templeton, 2010), 124-25.
 John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), 30.